We, um, grapple with the weird, sudden ubiquity of a bad-ass method of transportation
Watch a soldier eject from a Titan and grapple-kick an enemy in Titanfall 2, a marine effortlessly traverse space wreckage in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, or Dishonored 2’s Emily Caldwell spawn a tentacle from her arms to scale a nearby building all within the span of 48 hours, and you get the sense that the game development community seems to have figured out all at once that grappling hooks are cool. During E3 2016, you couldn't go through a press conference without having at least one Bionic Commando flashback.
It isn't the first time a gameplay gimmick has spread virally. 2015 was pretty much the Year of the Horse, with games like Metal Gear Solid V and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt employing them as a compromise between forcing players to walk everywhere and encouraging them to ignore large parts of the map by fast-traveling. Back in 2012, we had the Year of the Bow, thanks to the promotional efforts of games like Tomb Raider and Crysis 3, not to mention the theatrical release of The Hunger Games.
Why now for grappling hooks, though? One reason is surely the ever-expanding landscapes we're all playing in. Getting around in spaces as expansive as the ones in big-budget games can be a chore, and a good grappling hook condenses things while still letting you register their breathtaking scope. Such is the case with Assassin's Creed: Syndicate's grappling hook, which lets you opt out of its occasionally tiresome wall-climbing.
It's a little different for some upcoming releases, though. Infinite Warfare will use grappling hooks to bring order to its free-floating space combat. Titanfall 2 uses grappling hooks as a way to make its soldiers more mobile and its large battlefields more manageable. It's not only about traversal – grappling hooks are also being used to rein in combat.
There are even more efficient, fantastical ways to move around a space. For a while, games like Infamous, Prototype, and Saints Row let you ride rails, run off buildings, or just fly over them. Hell, the first Dishonored had a teleport. But those methods don't make sense for every game, and in our current era of gritty realism, every object needs to exist within the bounds of reality.
Trends like these also come along in film and music (lens flares, the rise and fall of dubstep), but neither medium has the goals video games do. Triple-A developers of the kind that now routinely build lavish, sweeping landscapes to explore, constantly strive for an ideal level of usability that lets you do everything you want when you want to – hence the recent tower-climbing trend, where you reveal waypoints from the sort of perch that would give Batman pause. Ubisoft is the big culprit here: Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 4, Watch Dogs. By the same token, we didn’t have standardized control layouts for third and first-person shooters until Call of Duty 4 happened, and we’ve been pressing "X" to reload ever since. Like internet browsers or video production programs, when one company finds a solution for a common problem, everyone eventually follows suit.